The circumscription of holiness

Things I’ve heard recently that give me pause for thought:
“God doesn’t care how you dress for worship.”
“I don’t think God is that concerned about whether we use ‘cuss words’ or not.” “I don’t see how the kind of music I listen to has anything to do with my relationship with God.”

On and on the comments go, usually followed by words to the effect of, “what matters is what’s in your heart.” Now I certainly do not dispute the notion that the condition of our hearts is of prime importance. Nevertheless there is a strange line when our purported “freedom in Christ” becomes a license to do whatever we want to do, usually by taking cues from our surrounding culture rather than allowing scripture to shape how we live. In this reaction there is a misunderstanding of the ways culture and faith intersect to the point that culture is always seen as something to accommodated with rather than being something that needs to be transformed and renewed in light of gospel revelation.

I give an example. Recent scholarship about the passages in scripture about women covering their heads in worship usually asserts that such head coverings were a culturally conditioned reflection of modesty. This is true. However what is not mentioned is that the Christianization of European society and culture made it normative for women to cover their heads totally or partially, especially when conducting religious activities, for over 2000 years. It has only been since the 1960’s that it became socially acceptable for women to go to church without wearing a hat. It is still generally viewed as disrespectful for men to wear hats indoors, in the presence of superiors, or certainly in church, while women incur no such approbation.

What many people fail to realize is that this very ingrained cultural practice is rooted at least partially in the application of scriptural instructions to the church, as is evident when looking at other cultures that do not have so long an exposure to Christianization. It is a wonder then that Christians look aghast at Muslim cultures that insist on particular standards of modesty when for much of church history such standards would have nearly identical.

The larger point is that for several centuries, indeed for most of Christian history, it was assumed that God indeed care how we dressed for worship or about modesty in general. Indeed it was assumed that our Christian faith ought to dictate much of how we lived. There was no separation between our private beliefs about and relationship with God and our public life. It has only been in the last several centuries that the realm of holiness has grown steadily smaller; God suddenly being unconcerned about dress, language, music, recreation, and any number of other things you can imagine. As a consequence, Christians live almost identical lives to the unbelieving world. There are no distinguishing characteristics in terms of our behavior, dress, language, entertainment choices, recreation, and labor practices… almost anything you can think of. When holiness gets reduced to the kindly thoughts and feelings that roll around in our heads, we are in bad shape.

In comparison, I think of Islam, which is a religion with similar moral demands as Christianity, albeit, one with very different foundational principles. Muslims who are serious about their faith are quite distinguishable for everything from their practices of prayer to the Mecca pilgrimage to the ways women and men dress. I do not say this to suggest that we should import and impose some legalistic morality that is contrary to the Spirit of Christ and Christian liberty. I just point out the irony.

Closer to home perhaps in the Christian experience is the discipline and devotion of Christian believers who come from non-Western places. The attention to prayer by Korean believers, the modest dress of African Christians, and the fervent worship of Latin American Christians are well attested. These believers are noticeably different in many ways than their co-nationals who do not believe and the lines drawn are often stark. Short term mission participants often marvel at the kinds of sacrifices routinely made by believers “over there” and yet often dismiss their life choices as being simply “cultural” rather than questioning whether we are simply a bit too enamored of our culture to stand in critique of it by living discernibly different lives.

It would be interesting if every Christian woman in America wore a head covering for a year in public as a sign of her devotion to God. Or better yet if every Christian refused to charge any interest on loans. If believers all chose to refrain from doing any work at all on Sunday – a Sabbath strike so to speak. It would be an interesting experiment to say the least, and is certainly unlikely to happen. Even so, any of these things would be an important visible sign that holiness matters – not just inwardly, privately, and devotionally – but in all of life.

Author: elderj

I was born the fourth child and third son of godly parents in Nashville Tennessee. After leaving home for college I got involved with InterVarsity, then graduated with a degree in finance. After that I got a masters in history. Nowadays I spend too much time reading, writing, thinking, and occasionally doing my job.

8 thoughts on “The circumscription of holiness”

  1. Elderj – A very provocative piece indeed given the name of your blog. Salvation turning to license has been a historical issue stretching back to the patriarchal days. When we hear ‘God doesn’t care if I, or how I, or when I’ we have lost sight of our fundamental calling – to be holy as he is holy. What some have argued is that this holiness is vested in our character and does not necessarily have to be reflected in our outward appearance or action (as you said.) Increasing holiness, the kind that is transformative of our character, cannot help but modify our outward behavior though, such that we stand out from the crowd. If our actions do not set us apart, it’s time for us to re-examine our relationship with the Transformer.

    On the other hand, I’m thinking right now of a recent experience where the contextual argument could be supported. I was able to take the family to Saddleback Church a couple of weeks ago and hear Rick Warren preach. What struck me was to see him in person fitting in with the SoCal culture in his jeans and untucked shirt. He fit in perfectly with the Orange COunty congregation that surrounded him but his behavior certainly set him apart. I wonder how I would respond if he told me that God didn’t care how he dressed as long as his heart was in the right place. I would be tempted to agree. Hmmm, more thought necessary.

    Love and Peace brother.

  2. If one principle at work in biblical injunctions about a woman’s attire was to keep strangers from thinking she was a prostitute, then there is a pragmatic dimension to the issue, as well as spiritual. I’m not sure the issue is so much being able to distinguish us as Christians as it is not mistaking us for immoral people. If a believer’s manner of dress causes strangers to approach the believer for sexual services, then something certainly needs ot change.

    I’d be hesitant to point to Muslim practices because so much of the dress code enforced on women is the result of an inexcusable chauvinism that puts all the responsibility for a man’s lust on the woman. If a bare head causes a man to lust, the problem isn’t the woman’s attire, it’s the man’s unregenerate heart. Streetwalkers and shadowy figures in burqas aren’t the only clothing options.

    What I wonder about most, however, is how the idea of holiness got estranged from the mission. If I “set apart” a pot because I want to use it for cooking, and not as a toilet, the “holiness” has more to do with its purpose than its nature. I don’t set it apart so it can be set apart; I set it apart so I can use it.

    Holy behavior is about being useable to God for his mission in a lost world. If my attire gets in the way of God being able to use me as a witness to unbelievers, then I need to change clothes. The same goes for any behavior or external appearance.

    I don’t dress in jeans and a polo shirt for the sake of dressing that way. I may like the look, but my appearance and behavior really must be about God’s mission for my life and what facilitates my witness and ministry. If dressing in a burqa gives a Western Christian woman access to a Muslim society to which God has called her, then it is appropriate attire. If dressing like Britney keeps her from being seen as a follower of Jesus, then it is inappropriate.

    Perhaps holiness is about mission, not just holiness for its own sake.

  3. Mark, you raise some interesting counter points that I largely agree with. However, I don’t know if holiness really is as much about mission as it is about reflection something more innate and intangible – which is a paradox because there is a certain tangibility to it.

    You are right to point out the issue with muslim dress, but I cite it only as an example. It was not so long ago in Christian history that women dressed much more like muslim women today and they did so out of concerns for modesty and holiness. My point however is not about dress per se, but about how easily we put large areas of our lives out of reach of “holiness” and in the process have become more and more conformed in our behaviors and attitudes to the prevailing culture rather than being counter cultural.

    Another way of thinking about it is that we tend to think of proper behavior, attitudes, dress, etc. as emanating strictly from the inside – which is quite right. However in doing this so much we fail to see how much our outward actions, behavior, etc. work to shape our inward attitudes. We must have right thinking AND right actions and the former need not always precede the latter in order to be authentic.

  4. Great thought.
    In my experience the emphasis on dress has been more for the sake of doing it and submitting to a man’s authority. In some churches that stress the importance of head coverings and modest apparel there is not much else there. The people get so caught up in the “dress code” and rediculing people who do not follow the dress code that serving Christ, Honoring Christ, or Lifting up Christ is not the focus of the church. Some holiness pastors do not have much to preach on outside of dresscode and baptism in the name of Jesus Christ.They preach as though they are straight out of the 1800’s to early 1900’s.
    I believe the presentation and presenters of holiness are what turn people off the most. The mention of Holiness/Sanctification makes people who do not know better think of ignorance, hypocrasy, depression, and The Color Purple. Those who profess holiness should do a better job of it’s presentation.
    I believe a holiness reformation can happen. However its all about presentation and education. Whats more, is the presenters of holiness need the right heart. There is too much debate and spiritual arrogance in the holiness church realm.

  5. Lawrence, thanks for stopping by. I know exactly what you mean and think that type of emphasis has turned a lot of people away from the holiness church.. and also become a cover for a lot of hypocrisy

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